Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Elliott and Hanning, Peter Clarke and Lord Howard of Rising.

Cameron: Practically a Conservative by Francis Elliott and James Hanning

With the apparent failure of a centre-right realignment and the growing strength of the Labour Party, questions are multiplying over David Cameron’s inability to create a new story for British politics. Jason Cowley, writing in the New Statesman this week, appraises the timely arrival of an updated version of Francis Elliott’s and James Hanning’s biography of David Cameron, first published in 2007 – a book that "will surely become the standard Cameron biography". It is a narrative of power where "again and again, Cameron’s charm is noticed and remarked upon". The old Etonian’s charm is such that Cameron’s rise is recounted by Elliott and Hanning "with hushed, excited reverence, which at times pushes the book closer towards hagiography".  The authors’ failure is most apparent in their attempt to convey something of Cameron’s inner life. In this regard, Elliott and Hanning may not be entirely at fault. Cowley observes that not only has Cameron never published anything of note, and that "gives an impression of knowing as much as he wants to know". In an age of profound political instability, Cameron remains dangerously "caught, even trapped, within a class and tradition". Such constraints, Cowley concludes, mean that the Cameron story "may not have the happy ending for which he and his party would have wished".

John Dugdale, writing in the Guardian, also notes how the update brings forward a very different story. The contrast is stark: "Before, he appeared poised to be embraced by the electorate, having escaped [his] gilded background; now he seems still detrimentally shaped by it, his failings as PM often attributable to an establishment mindset and image shared by his inner circle". The authors, "notably sharp on Cameron’s botched election campaign, uncertain EU policy and disastrous wooing of Rupert Murdoch’s executives", spare little criticism. It is the analysis of these fresh crises, writes Boyd Tonkin in the Independent, that shows how "'Flashman', the easily-rattled top dog, can lack drive and focus".

Enoch at 100: a Re-evaluation of the Life, Politics and Philosophy of Enoch Powell edited by Lord Howard of Rising

The qualities of Enoch Powell are re-evaluated in this commemorative collection of his speeches and essays by contemporary commentators. As a body of material, it offers an exploration of the rhetorical leitmotifs of the far right. These motifs are apparent in the "Rivers of Blood" speech of April 1968, which described a situation of such excessive immigration that could, Powell claimed, only be solved by non-white repatriation. The speech "made Powell a hero, particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts," writes Vernon Bogdanor in the New Statesman; "it was, in truth, unforgivable". Bogdanor examines how the rhetoric of persecution in turn gave birth to the right-wing trope of the liberal conspiracy to close down discussion of immigration. If so, the continuous political manipulation of immigration by the Conservatives can only mean that "the liberal conspiracy has not been very successful". For Bogdanor, Powell was "one of the 20th century’s false prophets", his "predictions of ethnic conflict – indeed, of civil war – have proved spectacularly wrong".

Charles Moore, writing in the Telegraph, finds that the prophet still has something to say. Despite the inflammatory oratory, Powell’s "commitment to the British nation state, and above all to the Parliament which embodied it, made him pay relentless attention to the visceral issues which lay behind the questions of the day". The book also sets out "his groundbreaking ideas about what causes inflation, his bold approach to energy policy". Moore sees the juxtaposition of both essays and speeches as offering a valuable insight into Powell’s powers of argument and expression: "He could think boldly about a huge range of subjects, and then argue about them with intellectual force and high emotion". Burning through the collection is Powell’s "strangely compelling tone of voice – the odd combination of eccentric professor and mass orator, of almost archaic obscurity and devastating clarity". This judgement is echoed by Adrian Hilton for the Daily Mail: "It becomes apparent to those who do not already know that Enoch Powell was, like Lear, a man more sinned against than sinning."

Mr Churchill's Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer by Peter Clarke

Peter Clarke’s book, an examination of the relationship between Winston Churchill’s literary output and his political career, enters a field of study where newcomers "need either to bring with them a reputation already made or else to happen upon a theme that has so far escaped notice," writes Douglas Hurd in the New Statesman. For Hurd, Clarke’s sharp research happily fulfils both criteria. In Clarke’s exploration of Churchill’s inheritance from his parents, the intersections between the political and the literary come readily enough. Churchill’s 1906 biography of his father, written while MP for Oldham, "was an openly partisan attempt to rebuild his father’s reputation as a Tory democrat". The narrative is familiar, but Clarke maintains a focus "on the relationship of Churchill with the publishers who moved from excitement to despair and back again as they watched, almost helplessly, the ups and downs of the author’s love affair with history – more particularly with his own page in that story". Churchill’s last work, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, written during the 1930s and eventually published in the 1950s, provoked an argument between the author and his publishers, inevitably fuelled by Churchill’s "determination to include in the History as much as possible of the traditional accounts on which he had been brought up".

Maya Jasanoff, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is most struck by Clarke’s focus on the financial aspect of Churchill’s writing career, "for a book about books, 'Mr Chuchill’s Profession' has rather more to say about those of the accounting variety than those filled with prose". But Richard Vinen, writing in the Independent, is sharpest on picking up on how the Anglophone world took shape in Churchill’s mind. Although Clarke denies that Churchill was an Anglo-Saxon supremacist, Vinen maintains that "race played a large role in his thinking. Even before the First World War, he talked in terms of 'Russian power, the yellow races, the Teutonic alliance and the English-speaking peoples'". But Vinen’s main problem with Clarke’s study is that it offers "neither a clear synthesis nor an original piece of research". An eye on the market, as well as Clarke’s reliance on reputation, makes the book seem "rather like many of Winston Churchill’s," Vinen concludes.

False prophet: Enoch Powell in 1978 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories